Learning to Love Change

Tom Peters

I have time and again insisted that making perpetual improvement everyone's business is the single most important competitive weapon for the volatile, global '90s. More pointedly, I remonstrate about "learning to love change."

Not surprisingly, I am repeatedly asked to "operationalize it." Few disagree with the prescription, but getting there is a far different matter.

The following factors, taken together as they must be, go a long way toward inducing a requisite fondness for change.

• Trust/respect/don't underestimate potential. Begin with the "knockout factor." If you, as a manager, don't trust, respect, and see the full potential in the average front-line employee—well, forget all that follows.

If we've learned anything from the experiences of Ford, Harley-Davidson, NUMMI, Worthington Industries, Johnsonville Foods, Milliken & Company, and other firms profiled in this column over the years, it is that people will rise to the occasion if sincerely and respectfully asked to do so. That clerk who successfully races cars on the weekend, and the secretary raising three kids by holding another job-and-a-half outside of "normal" hours, surely have the wherewithal to respond with ideas and commitment—if you exhibit the trust, care, and support that demonstrate your commitment to them.

• Insist upon (and promote) lifelong learning. I, and others, such as Harvard Professor Rosabeth Kanter, don't cotton to the old notion of corporate loyalty: "Keep your nose clean and we'll give you a home here." Today, loyalty given is a matter of the company committing to help a person grow perpetually; loyalty returned is the employees' willingness to contribute as long as the company abets their growth (i.e., their personal "competitiveness").

The individual unafraid of change is the individual constantly retooling her or his skills, and occasionally repotting them entirely. "Education" for today's surviving firm or employee (that lover of change) goes far beyond a patchwork of occasional training courses. Instead, the commitment to continuous learning per se becomes the driving/defining force that energizes the person, his or her career, and the firm as a whole.

• Share information. Sharing all the numbers is a major form of trust (see above). But it also allows people to join the boss in playing "the great game of business," as Springfield Remanufacturing's peerless chief, Jack Stack, calls it. When people are privy to the numbers (where they come from, what they mean, how the individual influences them), miracles of engagement, commitment, and contribution occur.

• Get customers involved. Customers (and, to a large extent, vendors and distributors) make things "real." Business comes to life when the buyer or would-be buyer is brought inside the corporate walls. (Or the employee routinely goes outside the corporate confines to work with the customer.) Realism and a sense of urgency—sterling reasons to embrace change—are immeasurably enhanced by the regular presence of outsiders.

• Emphasize "small wins." It's easy for the chief to get worked up about giving a big bonus to a star saleswoman. It's another matter entirely to ferret out the clerk in the order-entry department who has improved a cumbersome form—and to recognize her or him for a job well done. Given normal corporate attitudes, there is no such thing as taking a "small" risk: "small" from on high looks huge and dangerous from up close. Remember, small but consistent acts of recognition are much more important to inducing a penchant for change than big but sporadic ones.

• Tolerate failure to the point of cheerleading. It's obvious in "real life" (before you cross the corporate threshold): you learn to dock a 35-foot cabin cruiser by docking it, and your first 25 tries will be disasters. But if you are intimidated by the dockside titters after the first try, you'll either give up (sell the boat: I almost did) or start looking for easier moorings; in both cases, learning and improvement stops. The same applies directly to the warehouse or production line: only constant, heartfelt empathy (even applause) for the honest try that goes amiss will lead that would-be, world-class helmsmen to brave it one more time.

• Reject "turf" distinctions. Smart companies are quickly moving from a narrow, "vertical" organizational orientation to a broad, project-oriented, "horizontal" approach. Focusing on task-centered improvement teams induces affection for change. If all of life on the job consists of projects aimed at making things better (i.e., different), then change becomes endemic.

Change is a normal part of life. (Watch a four-year-old sometime. Watch yourself learning to garden on the weekends.) It only becomes abnormal in our corporations. Yet for most employees every day is a day of coping—with a distracted colleague, a broken-down machine, a persnickety customer. Such coping means routinely adapting, accepting the abnormal as normal. All we have to do as managers is hitch a ride on these everyday facts; in the end, that's what cheerleading for perpetual change is all about.

(C) 1990 TPG Communications.

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